When I was a kid, science was one of my favorite subjects. I loved the experiments, the modeling, the concepts, and also my teachers.
After high school, my education and career led me away from science. But since becoming a parent, I’ve been looking for ways to recapture that youthful passion, and pass it onto my children.
Citizen science is an opportunity to do both.
What is citizen science?
Scientists are constantly struggling to fund their research, and when resources are scarce, scientific advancement can stall. Citizen science is a way to prevent that, engaging regular people to gather, review, and analyze scientific data on everything from wildlife to weather to public health to interstellar phenomena.
People have been helping collect data for research for thousands of years. In ancient China, citizens helped gather data about locust outbreaks, which is helping scientists today better understand how climate change is affecting biological populations. In modern times, citizen science has become more deliberate, and the rise of the internet led to numerous opportunities.
Anyone with an interest in a project or topic, no matter their age or education level, can be a citizen scientist. It can be as simple as uploading a photo of a bird to an app, or as complex as building your own weather station and submitting detailed daily readings to an online database. It can be rewarding too, as this work has real impact and the number of studies using data from citizen science projects is on the rise.
Kids benefit greatly from participating in this kind of initiative. It encourages greater community involvement and helps them build hands-on experience using critical thinking and solving problems in the real world.
If this is something you and your family would enjoy, pick your project and start helping humanity know a little bit more about the world.
Tracking local plant and animal life
When you find an interesting plant, animal, or bug, snap a photo, upload it to the app, and answer some questions to classify it. Children can easily get in on the fun—whenever my kids stumble upon an interesting insect when they’re out in the woods behind our house, they’ll ask me to take a picture so we can upload it to the app and find out what it is.
My favorite feature is that more experienced users in your area can review your uploads and offer corrections. The platform then shares your submission with different scientific data repositories to use in different research endeavors. In addition, iNaturalist has a list of citizen science projects that you can specifically contribute to.
Great Backyard Bird Count
Another wildlife opportunity the kids and I look forward to participating in next year is the Great Backyard Bird Count from the Audubon Society. Over four days in February, people around the world look for birds in their area and report what they find. My kids and I have already started practicing our birding skills in the yard and out on hikes.
The organization recommends using the Merlin Bird ID app, the eBird Mobile app, or the eBird website on your computer to help you identify the birds that you see. Scientists will then have access to the data to study bird populations and the impact of environmental changes in them.
For more information about how to sign up to the Great Backyard Bird Count and the apps you can use, go to birdcount.org.
Developed by the University of Georgia, this platform offers citizen scientists the chance to report sightings of invasive species in the US or Canada. Many local ecosystems are seeing a growing population of different kinds of invasive plants, animals, and insects, making resources scarce for native species. Volunteers can help gather critical information about the distributions of these invaders and give scientists the data they need to control or eradicate them.
Citizen scientists can sign up on the EDDMapS website, and then either upload information—sightings, pictures, classification, and location data—to the same platform, or to one of the project’s region-specific free mobile apps. After that, an expert verifier will review your submission and add it to the publicly-available database so scientists can use it in their research.
EDDMapS regional apps are available for free for Android and iOS.
Study the skies and beyond
Very little impacts our day-to-day life like weather. As such, there are numerous citizen science projects dedicated to hyper-local weather tracking.
Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network
The Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network takes daily precipitation measurements from volunteers in the United States, Canada, and the Bahamas. You can sign up for the program on their website, where you’ll also find everything you need to know before embarking on this project—from the requirements to become a volunteer, to training materials, and the list of equipment you’ll need.
Anyone who’s interested can access the collected data on the CoCoRaHS’ website. Meteorologists, hydrologists, emergency managers, city managers, farmers, and many others use this information for everything from weather forecast verification, to insect control to managing droughts.
You can sign up for the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network by filling out an application here.
If you or your kids are more interested in going beyond the clouds, NASA has several projects running, both out in the stars and down on Earth.
One that I’ve dabbled with is the Planet Hunters TESS program. Launched in 2018, the project has participants help locate possible exoplanets by analyzing data from NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite. Volunteers examine light curve graphs on the project’s website and try to identify any dimming of a distant star’s light, which might signify the presence of an unknown planet.
Last year, the TESS Project published a paper detailing the findings of the first two years. They identified 90 exoplanet candidates and numerous unique-looking star systems, many with the help of citizen scientists.
Visit the Planet Hunters website to sign up and get started.
Another space-based research program is Galaxy Zoo, which asks people to classify galaxies by shape and visible features.
The process is simple: You go to the project’s website, look at a picture of a galaxy from the Dark Energy Camera Legacy Survey telescope, and answer a few classification questions. The data gathered in part by the army of citizen scientists working on this since 2007 has led to dozens of scientific publications.
Visit the Galaxy Zoo website to get started.
Keeping communities healthy through observation
Public health is another area where citizen scientists can have an impact on research.
A project managed by the US Environmental Protection Agency, Bloomwatch asks volunteers to observe local ponds and lakes all over the country for signs of cyanobacteria blooms, which are harmful to humans, pets, wildlife, and the ecosystem as a whole.
Everyone wanting to participate can download the project’s app and report possible bacterial growths to a public database for research purposes.
Globe Observer Program
This project is another app-based initiative that allows volunteers to upload data and observations to an app. This time, it involves mosquito populations during mosquito season, and whether local species could transmit certain diseases.
Depending on your experience and time, you can report on a potential mosquito habitat and the presence of larvae, or get more involved by sampling and counting the larvae. You can use the project’s official app to identify the species and potential disease transmission.
If you have any sympathy for mosquitoes, this initiative might not be for you. To prevent bugs from harming wildlife in your area and your community, you’ll need to eliminate the habitat you found after reporting, if possible.
This is a similar program from the University of Rhode Island for identifying ticks, sharing location data, and submitting the critters for disease testing.
[Related: Start your own citizen science project]
Anyone who finds a tick in their yard or on themselves, their children, or their pets can submit a photo, classification, date, and location to the TickEncounter platform. The website can also help you assess the risk of disease and find a tick testing center, if necessary.
To report a tick you can fill out a form at TickCounter.org.
Where to find more research projects
If nothing on the list tickles your fancy, there are lots of other websites with additional citizen science projects you might be interested in.
- CitizenScience.gov: An official government website collecting federally-supported citizen science projects.
- SciStarter: A research affiliate of North Carolina State University and Arizona State University, SciStarter is a community of citizen scientists working across thousands of projects.
- Zooinverse: An online portal for “people-powered research” allowing anyone to either create a new research project or participate in an existing one.
- CitSci.org: Born out of Colorado State University, CitSci.org brings together thousands of volunteer researchers working across more than a thousand projects.
Whatever subjects or initiatives you choose to participate in, becoming a citizen scientist can help you reconnect with the native curiosity we all had as children, and teach your kids the importance of understanding the world around us.